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Visual Arts, Abstract Expressionism

sculptor Claes Oldenburg, Joseph Kosuth, Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline

Shortly after World War II, American art began to garner worldwide attention and admiration. This change was due to the innovative fervor of abstract expressionism in the 1950s and to subsequent modern art movements and artists. The abstract expressionists of the mid-20th century broke from the realist and figurative tradition set in the 1930s. They emphasized their connection to international artistic visions rather than the particularities of people and place, and most abstract expressionists did not paint human figures (although artist Willem de Kooning did portrayals of women). Color, shape, and movement dominated the canvases of abstract expressionists. Some artists broke with the Western art tradition by adopting innovative painting styles—during the 1950s Jackson Pollock "painted" by dripping paint on canvases without the use of brushes, while the paintings of Mark Rothko often consisted of large patches of color that seem to vibrate.

Abstract expressionists felt alienated from their surrounding culture and used art to challenge society’s conventions. The work of each artist was quite individual and distinctive, but all the artists identified with the radicalism of artistic creativity. The artists were eager to challenge conventions and limits on expression in order to redefine the nature of art. Their radicalism came from liberating themselves from the confining artistic traditions of the past.

The most notable activity took place in New York City, which became one of the world’s most important art centers during the second half of the 20th century. The radical fervor and inventiveness of the abstract expressionists, their frequent association with each other in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and the support of a group of gallery owners and dealers turned them into an artistic movement. Also known as the New York School, the participants included Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Arshile Gorky, in addition to Rothko and Pollock.

The members of the New York School came from diverse backgrounds such as the American Midwest and Northwest, Armenia, and Russia, bringing an international flavor to the group and its artistic visions. They hoped to appeal to art audiences everywhere, regardless of culture, and they felt connected to the radical innovations introduced earlier in the 20th century by European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. Some of the artists—Hans Hofmann, Gorky, Rothko, and de Kooning—were not born in the United States, but all the artists saw themselves as part of an international creative movement and an aesthetic rebellion.

As artists felt released from the boundaries and conventions of the past and free to emphasize expressiveness and innovation, the abstract expressionists gave way to other innovative styles in American art. Beginning in the 1930s Joseph Cornell created hundreds of boxed assemblages, usually from found objects, with each based on a single theme to create a mood of contemplation and sometimes of reverence. Cornell's boxes exemplify the modern fascination with individual vision, art that breaks down boundaries between forms such as painting and sculpture, and the use of everyday objects toward a new end. Other artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg, combined disparate objects to create large, collage-like sculptures known as combines in the 1950s. Jasper Johns, a painter, sculptor, and printmaker, recreated countless familiar objects, most memorably the American flag.

The most prominent American artistic style to follow abstract expressionism was the pop art movement that began in the 1950s. Pop art attempted to connect traditional art and popular culture by using images from mass culture. To shake viewers out of their preconceived notions about art, sculptor Claes Oldenburg used everyday objects such as pillows and beds to create witty, soft sculptures. Roy Lichtenstein took this a step further by elevating the techniques of commercial art, notably cartooning, into fine art worthy of galleries and museums. Lichtenstein's large, blown-up cartoons fill the surface of his canvases with grainy black dots and question the existence of a distinct realm of high art. These artists tried to make their audiences see ordinary objects in a refreshing new way, thereby breaking down the conventions that formerly defined what was worthy of artistic representation.

Probably the best-known pop artist, and a leader in the movement, was Andy Warhol, whose images of a Campbell’s soup can and of the actress Marilyn Monroe explicitly eroded the boundaries between the art world and mass culture. Warhol also cultivated his status as a celebrity. He worked in film as a director and producer to break down the boundaries between traditional and popular art. Unlike the abstract expressionists, whose conceptual works were often difficult to understand, Andy Warhol's pictures, and his own face, were instantly recognizable.

Conceptual art, as it came to be known in the 1960s, like its predecessors, sought to break free of traditional artistic associations. In conceptual art, as practiced by Sol LeWitt and Joseph Kosuth, concept takes precedent over actual object, by stimulating thought rather than following an art tradition based on conventional standards of beauty and artisanship.

Modern artists changed the meaning of traditional visual arts and brought a new imaginative dimension to ordinary experience. Art was no longer viewed as separate and distinct, housed in museums as part of a historical inheritance, but as a continuous creative process. This emphasis on constant change, as well as on the ordinary and mundane, reflected a distinctly American democratizing perspective. Viewing art in this way removed the emphasis from technique and polished performance, and many modern artworks and experiences became more about expressing ideas than about perfecting finished products.

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